San Francisco on the cheap


POSTED: Saturday, July 18, 2009

It's the closest major city to Hawaii, but it's also one of the priciest. Here's how to make a trip to San Francisco affordable for almost any budget.


Incomparable Views

Surrounded by a bay and flanked by bridges, hilly San Francisco is certainly picturesque. The tops of many streets afford expansive views, but for exceptional panoramas, head to the Twin Peaks district or ascend Telegraph Hill. For snapshots of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, wander through Lincoln Park, stroll along the Golden Gate Promenade, take the Golden Gate Ferry or Blue and Gold Fleet to charming Sausalito, or walk across the bridge itself during daylight hours for an unforgettable experience. For a different view of the metropolis, head for Alamo Square, where classic Victorian houses are framed by modern skyscrapers.


Museums Galore

Many of San Francisco's major art museums are free on the first Tuesday of the month. These include the renowned Asian Art Museum and its vast jade treasures; the de Young Museum with its striking architecture and works from the Americas, Africa and the Pacific Islands; and the funky exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The latter is also half-price on Thursdays from 5:45 to 8:45 p.m. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is likewise complimentary on the first Tuesdays of the month, while the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, with its outstanding classic art collection, is free every Tuesday.

For a longer stay in the City by the Bay, there are many smaller museums to explore. These charge no admission during the following times: the Cartoon Art Museum (first Tuesday of every month), the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (Tuesdays), the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center (first Thursdays) and the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (first Thursdays). Always free of charge are the Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse Viewing Gallery, the Randall Museum (covering art and science), the Pacific Heritage Museum and the San Francisco Railway Museum. The San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco City Hall are likewise open free to the public, with the latter also providing complimentary tours.

For science fans, the newly housed California Academy of Sciences recently underwent $500 million in changes and is well worth a visit. Due to these reasons, however, tickets can be hard to come by, and are a pricey $24.95 for adults except for Thursday nights from 6 to 10 p.m. ($10) or the third Wednesday of every month (no charge). The Exploratorium, a fascinating hands-on science venue for old and young alike, is free on the first Wednesday of each month.


Additional Activities

Military buffs will enjoy Fort Point National Historic Site and its cannon-loading demonstrations, or the Presidio, which was in use by the military until 1994. In contrast, peace and quiet can be found at the following well-known churches: Grace Cathedral with its beautiful stained glass, Old St. Mary's Church in Chinatown and contemporary St. Mary's Cathedral.

Other unique activities include taking one of the world-famous cable cars. For $5 it's a memorable ride. More strenuous is a walk along Lombard Street, known as the most crooked in the world. Alternatively, simply meander through the largest Chinatown outside of the Middle Kingdom. It costs $80 to take the “;I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown!”; tour, but with the plenitude of baked goods, dim sum and other foodstuffs readily available, it's easy enough to fill up on your own.

Fun places to wander and perhaps pick up omiyage are tourist-oriented Pier 39, complete with noisy sea lions; nearby Fisherman's Wharf with its fresh seafood; Ghirardelli Square, named for the famous chocolate; the Cannery, a former Del Monte plant; and the Ferry Building Marketplace, whose popular Farmer's Market is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays.


Outdoor Excursions

With temperate weather averaging 57 degrees, San Francisco offers plenty to do outdoors. Just be sure to bring along a jacket for chilly evenings or when the fog hovers. Admission to the San Francisco Zoo with its 250 species is complimentary the first Wednesday of the month. With more than 1,000 acres, famous Golden Gate Park contains plenty to do for visitors, and offers walking tours at no cost. The park contains the following botanical highlights, which are complimentary during the listed times: the Conservatory of Flowers (first Tuesday of the month), the Japanese Garden (first and last hours of the day) and the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum (whenever it is open). Other outdoor areas worth visiting include the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park near Fisherman's Wharf, and the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, where many a wedding photo has been taken in front of the lovely lagoon.


Be Entertained

With renowned theater performances, film venues, music groups and dance troupes (think the San Francisco Symphony or the San Francisco Ballet), there's never a shortage of entertainment available in the City by the Bay. It's just a matter of being able to afford it.

To the rescue on the day of performances are TIXBay Area, located in the Union Square Garage, which offers 50 percent off for music, theater and dance programs, and the box office at the San Francisco Opera House, which sells standing-room tickets. For music lovers, bands in Golden Gate Park and summer concerts at the Sigmund Stern Memorial Park both take place free of charge to the public.

Lively festivals occur in San Francisco all year round. Examples include Japantown's Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, Chinatown's New Year's and Autumn Moon Festivals and North Beach's Columbus Day Celebration.

Even though the Bay Area is known to be expensive, there are many ways to cut costs during a visit to San Francisco. With the money saved this time around, it might even be possible to afford a return trip to the City by the Bay and its beguiling panoply of one-of-a-kind attractions.


Monica Quock Chan is a Honolulu-based freelance writer and former marketing executive who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has lived in Europe and Asia, and traveled to nearly 70 countries.